Walk by the wall on North Wells Street in Chicago and you might not notice anything, unless it was for those bits of colored tile interrupting the courses of brick. Go through the gate, wind your way through a series of courtyards—which open in ways that you thought were impossible in the city’s strict rhythm of row houses, their fronts to the street and rears to back alleys—and you will find yourself knocking on a red door, carved with promises of forms inside, until you enter into a vertigo of art. This is the R.W. Glasner Studio, one of the very few inhabitable works of art the artist Edgar Miller created in Chicago. In contrast to Wright’s Winslow House, which I discussed last week, this is a place that offers an alternative to the dream of suburbia: an explosion of space, form, texture, and imagery that implodes urbanity into a celebration of all the craft that cities and cultures can bring together.
Miller was a prolific (but now largely unknown) member of Chicago’s inter-War arts world who developed a taste for relating his carved wood, plasterwork, and stained glass creations to each other in spaces and then spinning them out into the three dimensions of what were mainly domestic and studio environments. His largest and most elaborate creation was the Carl Street Studios, just down the street from the Glasner Studio.
Once you enter into the studio, which Miller started to develop with his frequent collaborator, Sol Kogen, between 1928 and 1932 (with an extensive remodel in 1946), you find yourself in a space that does not work according to the rules taught in that era, nor those which we still profess in architecture schools. Around a staircase that disappears up into the ceiling, you find one larger space up and in front of you, as well as alcoves in two directions and a tumble of additional stairs down to a lower suite of living spaces. All of the spaces on this set of levels are open to each other, providing vistas that pulsate with light and art that is itself all the more remarkable because it is carried out in so many different materials.
Trained as a painter, Miller taught himself stained glass, wood carving, and a whole set of other techniques that let him inscribe his abstractions of both modern life and nature into surfaces that range from the opaque and solid to the ethereal and transparent. The figures and colors catch your eye, holding it for a second before you find yourself drawn to the next scene. It is a riot of art, and apparently successive owners used it as the party space Miller (whom sources invariably describe as a bon vivant) designed it to be.
Despite the attention the artist paid to so many different surfaces, there is little sense of preciousness about the place. Miller liked to used left-over materials, like the bits of tile on the outside wall (which re-emerges inside to turn the bathroom floor into a collage carpet), finding he could describe animals and figures with industrial glass fragments that were full of color.
The big pay-off happens when you mount the staircase, pop through the ceiling, and find yourself in what I can only describe as a baronial hall that has floated into the middle of Chicago. Underneath painted wood beams and lit by stained glass two stories tall, sits a dining table. It is not actually that large (it seats only eight, though it can be extended), but the space feels enormous after all the complexity of what is below.
What interested me particularly about the Glasner Studio is that it fits squarely in an Arts & Crafts tradition in which every surface and bit of furnishing works together to create an environment that is resolutely and joyously made by humans. It is an artifice that exhibits the beauty and skill of making, and asks us to live in a world carved out of sameness and mass production. Miller built this space decades after the movement’s heyday, which only increases its sense of being out of time and place.
Just as important to me is the fact that this an interior, and one that breaks so many rules of correct architecture. It shows the capacity of a skilled maker to calibrate form, texture, and space within and without the strictures of correct building design. Luckily, you will soon be able to arrange to visit this fairy tale scene upon appointment (through Edgar Miller Legacy). Take advantage of that possibility; its soaring, spinning, crafted spaces will delight you as much as any of Chicago’s famed skyscrapers shooting for the stars.